What Is Resistance Training?
If you’ve ever tried sprinting up a hill, you probably noticed that it’s a lot harder than sprinting across flat ground. Why? When you’re running up a hill, you have the force of gravity providing resistance to the body, which inhibits the speed at which you can run. In order to accelerate up the hill, the body is forced to overcome that resistance. This is an example of what we call resistance training.
Resistance training is a form of exercise that helps to improve muscular strength and endurance, using things like bodyweight, bands, or external weight to provide resistance for the muscles. It involves using progressively heavier resistance in order to stimulate muscle development, and it also helps to improve body composition, movement function, and overall health.
Why You Should Care
Lifting weights, running, and spinning are all great forms of exercises to help build strength and stamina, but incorporating resistance training into your workout regimen can further improve your athletic performance. Here’s why [NASM, 2017]:
- Improves cardiovascular efficiency
- Improves hormone and cholesterol profiles and adaptations
- Decreases body fat
- Increases metabolic efficiency (i.e. boosts metabolism)
- Improves hormone function
- Reduces blood pressure
In addition to improving body composition – or your physical appearance – resistance training offers a handful of other key physical benefits that we can’t see on the outside.
- Improves physical work capable capacity
- Develops tissue tensile strength (muscle, tendons, ligaments)
- Increases cross-sectional area of muscle fibres (i.e. more muscular power)
- Improves bone density (this is important as we age)
- Helps preserve and build lean muscle tissues — this is important as we lose muscle mass at a rate of about 5 lbs. per decade (or 0.5 lbs. per year) as we age
- Increases neuromuscular control (i.e. coordination)
- Increases endurance, strength, and power
- Improves stabilization
- Improves flexibility and balance
- Decreases risk of injury
Incorporating resistance training into your routine doesn’t have to mean spending hours upon hours in the gym, either. Studies show that even as little as two 15-20 minute sessions a week can have profound benefits .
When it comes to variety in training techniques, resistance training delivers. There are several ‘systems’ that you can use to shake things up so you’re not doing the same thing every day. Here’s a run down of some of the options, with examples:
Straight Set System — Performing a specified number of sets with the same number of repetitions using the same weight
- Example: 3 sets of 12 repetitions of bicep curls using 15lb. dumbbells
Pyramid System — Increases or decreases weight with each set of an exercise
- Example: 3 sets of a back squat using 100lbs. on the 1st set, 120lbs. on the 2nd set, and 140lbs. on the 3rd set
Supersets — Two exercises performed in rapid succession
- Example: 3 sets of (1) bench press for 12 reps using 130lbs. followed immediately by (2) 10-15 pushups
Note: you can also pair upper and lower body exercises in a superset — it doesn’t have to include two exercises for the same muscle group
Drop-Sets — Performing a set of an exercise until failure, then removing a percentage of the weight (usually 5-20%) and continuing until failure
- Example: 3 sets of bicep curls using 30lb. dumbbells on set 1 until failure, dropping to 25lbs. until failure on set 2, and 20lbs. until failure on set 3
It’s not just about the type of resistance training you do; there are several other acute variables that contribute to strength development and the results you get. So when designing a program, it’s important to consider the following factors for each exercise :
- Training Frequency — Frequency of training is usually talked about based on a one-week period. While there are hard and fast rules about how many times you should train a specific region of the body, 1-2 times per week is generally sufficient to maintain physical, physiological, and performance benefits and improvements.
- Exercise Selection and Order — Choosing appropriate exercises is a hugely important factor when designing a program. The human movement system is highly adaptable to any stress placed on it, so it’s important to design exercises specific for training goals. Based on the number of joints used in the movements, exercises may be single-joint (bicep curls), multi-joint (squats and lunges), or total body.
- Training Volume — This refers to the amount of physical training performed within a period of time. In order to prevent injury and overtraining, it’s important to plan and control your training volume. This will vary based on training phase, goals, age, work capacity, recoverability, health, and stress levels. Training volume is inversely related to intensity, so remember that the higher the intensity is, the lower the volume will likely be.
- Training Intensity — This refers to an individual’s level of effort compared to their max. effort, and is one of the most important variables to consider when designing your training program. Depending what you’re working on — hypertrophy, maximal strength, power, or muscular endurance and stabilization — your training insanity will range from 30-100% power at 1 rep max.
- Rest — Your rest interval is the amount of time taken to rest between sets, and it has a profound impact on the results of your training program. As with intensity, the type of work you do will dictate your rest periods, which will range between 30 seconds and 5 minutes. The rest period determines the extent to which energy resources are replenished before your next set. At 20-30 seconds rest, a mere 50% is recovered, while at 3 minutes that percentage is nearly 100%.
Resistance Training Principles
When it comes to resistance training, there are five principles to understand that can help you maximize efficiency and results.
- Individual Differences — Every person is unique and will therefore have different strengths and weaknesses that must be accounted for when designing and implementing a resistance training program.
- General Adaptation Syndrome — There are three stages of adaptation the body undergoes when dealing with a stressor, exercise included: 1. Alarm, whereby your body reacts to the training stimulus; 2. Resistance, whereby your muscles adapt to the stress; and 3. Exhaustion, where you risk experiencing burnout or overtraining if you keep doing at this level.
- Principle of Specificity — If you’re looking to improve a specific area of your training, focus on that area. This principle states that training should be appropriate and relevant to the sport in which you are training to achieve your desired result. Practice makes perfect!
- Principle of Overload — When you overload the body, it will overcompensate in order to prevent experiencing that again. In order to improve, you have to expose your body to continually more challenging situations as the body adjusts to existing conditions.
- Law of Reversibility — The law of reversibility states that in order to improve at an exercise or increase in weight, you must continue to practice that exercise; it’s the principle of ‘use it or lose it.’ We lose strength at about half the rate that is was gained, reinforcing the importance of implementing resistance training as a lifestyle rather than simply a form of exercise.
Understanding these principles, even in a basic way, can help you get a better sense of how your body adapts to resistance training and provide some guidance when programming your workouts.
How To Do Resistance Training
When most people think of resistance training, free weights are the first tool to come to mind. But there are plenty of other great options you can use, too:
- Selectorized equipment (machines)
- Resistance bands (mini bands or full size)
- Medicine balls
- Kettle bells
- Suspension equipment
It’s important to choose your equipment based on the primary movements patterns you choose to do. For example, if your primary movement is squatting, you may want to consider free weights or kettlebells. If you’re pushing or pulling, opting for cables, resistance bands, and certain machines might be a good choice.
…and if you can’t get your hands on any of that, how about your own bodyweight? Bodyweight exercises are a great and highly effective option for people who don’t have access to a facility with equipment.
NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. (2017). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.